Action Verbs

Sermon for Sunday, August 30, 2015 || Proper 17 || James 1:17-27

actionverbsMy tenth grade English teacher, Mrs. Lewis, disliked linking verbs – passionately disliked linking verbs. She disliked linking verbs so much that she would count the number of times we students used the words “is” and “was” (and all the others) in our papers and deduct points if we exceeded more than one or two per paragraph. She nursed a particular vendetta against the word “become,” if memory serves. Do you know how hard it is to write a paper with next to no linking verbs? (I just used one in the last sentence, and you probably didn’t even notice.) Now we students grumbled about this strict grading procedure every time we wrote an essay, but Mrs. Lewis stuck to her guns. And God love her for it, because I count Mrs. Lewis as one of the teachers that made me the writer I am today. (Dang! I just used another linking verb.)

By forcing us to use action verbs, Mrs. Lewis taught us to make our essays hum with energy and movement. I remember editing my papers to ferret out every last linking verb and trying to shove as much action as I could into them. The sentence “The Lord of the Flies is a book about the aftermath of a plane crash” changed to “In The Lord of Flies, boys survive a plane crash, but not each other.” Sounds like a movie trailer right? That’s what Mrs. Lewis was pushing for – pulsing, active writing from a group of tenth graders who didn’t really care that much.

I think Mrs. Lewis had a little bit of the Apostle James in her, judging by his letter tucked away near the back of the New Testament, a portion of which we just read. “Be doers of the word,” says James, “and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” Be doers of the word. Use action verbs in your life. The Word of God is not just words on the pages of a dusty book on the shelf. The Word of God rushes up off those pages and implants in our hearts. The Word of God propels us to get ourselves off the couch and do something. Be doers of the word.

Throughout his somewhat labyrinthine prose, James hammers on this point again and again. At the end of today’s passage, James offers a rare moment of succinct clarity: true religion, he says, “is this: to care for the orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” James uses action verbs: care for the marginalized, and keep yourself clean, unsullied by the misplaced priorities of the world.

In a few moments, we will stand up and say a host of action verbs, as well. We will affirm our Baptismal Covenant, standing with the soon-to-be-baptized and renewing the actions that our baptismal life compels us to do. I know many of you were baptized long before the Baptismal Covenant was even written, but I hope since its publishing in 1979 you have come to adopt it as your own. The Baptismal Covenant is the Episcopal Church’s own rare moment of succinct clarity, like James’s caring for orphans and widows. The Covenant begins with belief – an adapted version of the Apostles’ Creed – and then moves on to five promises that this belief stirs us to act upon.

Mrs. Lewis would like these five promises. There’s not a linking verb to be found. Every verb in these five promises propels us to act.

“Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” The verb “continue” assumes these actions of learning, sharing, and praying have always been ongoing. These actions have persisted since the time of the apostles, and we are stepping into the ever-flowing stream of their legacy. This first promise invites us to join a movement already in progress and lend it our hands and voice and heart.

The second promise: “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” The verb “persevere” speaks to the weariness that creeps in while we resist evil. Evil wears us down, preferring not to strike all at once, but rather to gnaw on us while we’re not looking, until we do look one day and find there’s nothing left. But we promise to persevere and to repent and return to God when we do fall into sin. Notice we don’t say “if” we fall into sin. We say “when,” which is why God always leaves open to us the actions of repenting and returning.

The third promise: “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” The verb “proclaim” urges much more than mere speaking. We’re talking about shouting from the rooftops here; we’re talking about putting your whole self forward, staking a claim, taking a stand, making your words line up with your actions. That’s proclamation. And what are we proclaiming? The Good News of God in Christ – I can’t think of anything worthier of such a strong verb as “proclaim.”

The fourth promise: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” Seek, serve, love – this is the heart of our duty and our joy as followers of Jesus Christ. If you take this promise seriously, you soon realize just how hard it is to embody. But Jesus never said being his follower would be easy. He said it would bring life – abundant life to each follower and each person his followers touch.

The fifth promise: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” The verb “strive” is like the verb “persevere.” It reminds us that we will never be done working for justice and peace. There is no happily-ever-after this side of heaven. But perhaps in the daily working for justice, we move an inch closer than we were before: a quarter teaspoon more fairness stirs into the mix, a splash more peace, and that’s all we can do for today. And it all starts simply by respecting everyone’s dignity, looking each person in the eye and saying, “We’re all in this together.”

In response to each promise, we say, “I will, with God’s help.” We acknowledge that we can take none of these actions without God’s patient urging and steadfast partnership. Our baptism is not just a symbolic act of washing and welcome. Our baptism catalyzes a life of action. With God’s help, we continue in learning, sharing, and praying. We persevere in resisting evil. We repent and return to the Lord. We proclaim the Good News. We seek, serve, and love Christ in others. We strive for justice and peace. We respect all people.

I wonder which of these actions captures you today? I wonder which action compels you to leave this church today on fire to do it? I wonder what rare moment of succinct clarity you hear from God this day? Each of us is a doer of the word. So go with God: learn, share, pray, persevere, repent, proclaim, seek, serve, love, strive, respect. Each of us is a doer of the word. So go with God. Do.

First Fruits

(Sermon for Sunday, September 2, 2012 || Proper 17B || James 1:17-27)

That’s me in 4th or 5th grade. This picture will make more sense when you get near the end of the sermon.

This past Thursday morning at about three minutes to eight, I found myself staring at a blank page on my computer screen. I had been contemplating this sermon since I awoke two hours before, but had yet to type more than a few halting phrases, which I erased as soon as I finished them. Today’s passage from the letter of James had really drawn me in, so I knew that this sermon would spring from James’s words, but I still didn’t know where the sermon was going exactly. Specifically, the first two verses from the reading really sparkled for me, so I focused in on them. Soon, I snatched the theme of this sermon out of the Holy Spirit’s mysterious creative ether. But then the minutes continued to tick by. 8am was approaching, and my page was still blank. I had my theme, but no words. I twiddled my thumbs, discouraged, and resisted the urge to surf the Internet.

Then, at three minutes to eight, I realized something. I realized (much to my chagrin) that I had failed to do the very thing that I’m about to start advocating. I had forgotten to act on the theme for this sermon that had come to me less than a half hour before. I had neglected to give to God the act of preparing the sermon. So I took a moment: I breathed deeply, a tiny prayer detached from within, and I offered my writing to God. And the words that I am now speaking to you began to flow.

That’s the theme, by the way: giving our actions to God – and not just giving them, but offering our actions to God as we get ready to take them. I’m spelling out this theme now so that I don’t forget again before I finish preaching this sermon.

The letter of James says, “Every generous act of giving, every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights… In fulfillment of [God’s] own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.”

Have you ever considered yourself to be part of the first fruits of God’s creatures? Until I read this passage this week, I hadn’t. James borrows this common image from the religious life of Israel and applies the idea of first fruits to Jesus’ followers. Because Israel was an agrarian society, the offerings people made to God most often consisted of crops and livestock. The concept of giving of your first fruits showed your utter dependence on God because, when you gave your offering, you didn’t know if the rest of the crop was going to grow or if the rest of the baby animals would survive. The first fruits went to God, which showed your devotion and your trust in God’s faithfulness.

James takes this idea of first fruits and applies it to people – both his own listeners and you and me. We ourselves are the first fruits of God’s creatures. To be first fruits means to give ourselves to God before we give ourselves to anything else. Now before you all jump out of your seats and head off to the nearest monastery, be assured that giving ourselves to God as first fruits does not usually lead to such an extreme action. Each of us, no matter to what level we are enmeshed in the life of faith, can give ourselves to God as first fruits.

Instead of running off to the monastery, I invite you slowly to build a new practice into your lives. New spiritual practices take a long time to make natural and usually involve quite a few stops and starts, so don’t give up after your first or one hundred and first failure. But over time they do become natural, like breathing or driving a manual transmission. And if you’re worried about not having time or resources to attempt a new practice, then don’t be. This spiritual practice that I’m about to describe takes next to no time out of your day, and you don’t even have to buy any expensive gear. But the practice is tenaciously difficult, one that takes a lifetime (and probably an afterlifetime) to master. However, even simply attempting this practice will help us fulfill our role as first fruits.

This new practice begins by adding a step to each of our actions. Anytime we are about to take an action, we go through several steps. Our minds weigh various outcomes. Then we make a decision. Then our bodies grind into motion. Then we act. Sometimes these steps happen in the blink of an eye, like when reacting to a traffic light changing. Sometimes they are drawn out, especially if the action is some sort of life-altering one, like when you contemplate asking someone to marry you.

Our new spiritual practice adds a step at the beginning of the whole process. Before engaging in the normal series of steps, give to God the action you are contemplating. Say to God, “I give you this action, a first fruits offering of myself.” By giving the beginning of our actions to God, we engage in the same devotion and trust that the ancient Israelites did when they gave the first fruits of their crops to God as offerings. Before we know if our actions are going to succeed or fail, before we know the consequences, if we pause and give them to God, then we actively invite God into the process that leads to the actions being taken. Rather than reporting to God after the fact, we become aware of God all the way through.

Notice how this will affect the kinds of actions we decide to take. Your son strikes out for the third time in the little league game. You could criticize and disparage his baseball ability, or you could stop, give the impending action to God, and realize that criticism and disparagement are not the kind of first fruits you want to offer to God. The tiny moment of offering the impending action to God helps you encourage instead of criticize.

Or you’re getting ready for your third date with a friend of a friend. You’re putting on your eyeliner, and you stop for a moment and offer the date to God as a first fruit of yourself. By giving the date to God, you are more likely to invite God in as you discern whether that friend of a friend is the right person to share your life with.

Or you’re getting ready to write a sermon, but no words come until you give the sermon to God.

Every action we take can be part of the first fruits that we offer to God when we invite God into the action from the outset. When we take on this spiritual practice of mindfully and prayerfully giving our actions to God, we will find that God is so much more present in our lives. God will be no more present than God was before, but our awareness of that presence will be heightened. And our actions will more frequently conform to the life-giving way in which God yearns for us to walk.

Speaking as someone who is still a novice in this spiritual practice, I will tell you that the few and far between times that I do remember to invite God into my actions, I find a peace and a trust that escape me at all other times. No matter if the action itself results in success or failure, the peace and trust linger, letting me know that God was present to me. And for the briefest moment, I was present to God, offering myself as a first fruit. Each of us is a first fruit of God’s creatures; each one of our actions is an opportunity to offer our fruitfulness back to God. And when we do, we will discover that God is always and forever offering God’s own self back to us, sustaining us in every action we take.